Gillian Sze’s debut book of poetry, Fish Bones, is anything but the cold fossil described in the title. Her poetry and imagination shimmer with life, vitality and peculiar beauty.
Fish Bones is a series of “powerful and precise artefact poems” – as described on the book jacket – which emerges from Sze’s interaction with art-objects in galleries as varied as Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
But Sze’s poetry, while receiving the “first spark” of inspiration from art-objects, stands worthily on its own. Her poetry is deeply sensual and charged with relational wisdom – romantic, familial, aesthetic, or otherwise. The very substance of interaction becomes the contact point of Sze’s poetry, balancing tenaciously between past and present, memory and experience.
In “Forget-Me-Not,” Sze describes the eruption of memory in the present moment. A husband is thrown back into remembrances of a former lover by his wife’s pictures and anecdotes from a trip to Peru. Sze brings a vivid wisdom to this moment, writing of the husband’s discovery “that the possibility to forget / is as brief as his reflection / on the window of a closing door.”
In “Alone on the Other Side of the World,” Sze describes the emotional effects of (physical) distance. “Tonight you feel farther than ever” begins the narrator, and then subsequently admits “My mind has started playing tricks.” The cashier’s words and the sound of a moth in the house become the presence of the poem’s “you.” Memory becomes the absent presence in the poem, which overtakes the narrator and comes to represent the experience of distance.
Throughout these poems, Sze manages to capture the gritty moments of life experience and the profound reality that the past informs the present. Inescapably, the past leaves its marks on the present and shapes a person’s experience of others.
For example, “How To Be Dead” describes the thin line between existence and invisibility, taking the death of the unnamed “you” and considering one’s own “ghostly” existence. “Animal Tracks” describes the significance of a forest excursion examining animal footprints with “sister” in terms of a past moment of diagnosis – “atypical cells / in your test results.”
All in all, Sze’s Fish Bones is a strong literary debut and worth reading. Her voice is both vibrant and wise, offering a perspective that reflects life, in all its unpredictability, and captures something of love.
Sze was born and raised in Winnipeg and now resides in Toronto. She has an MA in creative writing from Concordia University.
Sze will be giving two readings in Winnipeg at the end of August: on Wednesday, Aug. 26 at Aqua Books at 7 p.m., and on Thursday, Aug. 27 at McNally Robinson Polo Park at 7:30 p.m.
Published in Volume 63, Number 29 of The Uniter (July 16, 2009)